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Ask Polly: When Will These Doubts About My Girlfriend Go Away?

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Dear Polly,

I have been dating my girlfriend since 2009 with a two-year break in the middle because I moved across the country. During that time I partied a little too much, and when I was an idiot, she always supported me. Once I moved back, I was reluctant to get back together with her and I had doubts, but I truly cared for her and felt like I had to give it a try. I voiced my doubts to her before getting back together, telling her that I wasn’t sure if I saw our relationship being long-term, but I’d be willing to give it a shot if we don’t rush things.

We’ve been back together for almost two years, and those doubts haven’t subsided. We moved in together a couple of months ago, and the doubts have become persistent. I love her, but when I begin to think about my future and what it looks like, I can’t picture her in it. I like our relationship and the support we provide each other emotionally and career-wise, but something is missing. I don’t get excited to do things with her anymore, and being together feels more like a chore than quality time spent with my girlfriend. My lease is up in a few months and I don’t know what to do. These months seem like forever away. And maybe my doubts aren’t real and I’m blowing something with a great woman??? It seems like a simple solution, but I feel conflicted. Why can’t I just be happy in a relationship others would love to be in?

Sincerely,

Conflicted

Dear Conflicted,

Anyone can have doubts about anyone else, and they don’t necessarily mean that the relationship is doomed. The question is, when do these doubts come up, how often do they come up, and how do they feel? Are they irritating little things that bother you occasionally, like pesky insects, or are they looming, unnerving things that turn your whole life gray and make you feel unsettled and depressed, like ghosts?

Maybe you’ll even have an occasional fantasy of a guy who doesn’t cling and doubt himself, or a girl who doesn’t nag or listen to country pop. But in your fantasy, the dream mate in question doesn’t just listen to the music you like or move confidently through the world, that dream mate also has a perfect body, and emerges cinematically from the ocean waves, staring intensely into your eyes the entire time. This is not just a fantasy of someone who likes to play Scrabble instead of watching SportsCenter, or someone who doesn’t make that one irritating face or have terrible taste in furniture. This is a fanciful flight of imagination, a mind appetizer, and nothing more. This is you wishing temporarily that human beings were less humanlike and more like sexy movies where the sexiness never ends. This is you making peace with the fallibility and imperfection of other humans, and also becoming comfortable with BEING a fallible human — something you’ll have to do eventually, with anyone, if you believe in lifelong partnerships.

Other doubts — those haunting, ghostlike doubts — are more formless and shapeless and persistent. They come on regularly and they even cloud your happiest moments together. You’re out to dinner at a nice restaurant, and the two of you are trying to enjoy each other’s company but it just feels like it’s not remotely working, and it ALWAYS SEEMS TO FEEL THIS WAY. You’re having a drink in your apartment, trying to relax and talk about stuff that matters, and it’s just not happening somehow. She doesn’t talk about things you’re interested in, ever, and she doesn’t listen, either. He keeps getting up to do things – adjust the stereo, answer the phone, make another drink — and he seems to not want to have a conversation with you or spend time with you at all. And when you should be having the best time ever – You’re on a trip! You’re at someone else’s amazing wedding! You’ve been drinking and dancing all night! – something big always seems to go wrong. Even when you’re both very happy, you don’t connect. Even when you’re both very relaxed, you don’t connect. Your lives together feel like a series of disappointments and missed connections.

You may also have a nagging sense that the other person doesn’t necessarily love or even you like you that much, but for some reason he/she/they have DECIDED that you are the proper match and therefore are determined to joylessly sally forth and MAKE THIS THING OFFICIAL no matter what. Maybe your partner has abandonment fears or just really values safety and security over almost everything else, including happiness. Maybe your partner really wants to have children soon, so she sticks around in spite of the fact that the two of you bring no joy to each other’s lives.

But even if the other person is totally in love and dedicated to you, if your doubts are persistent and they never really go away completely and you aren’t looking forward to much about your lives together in the future, you need to take some action now to prevent a lot of pain for both of you moving forward.

What’s surprising is how HARD it can be to figure out how seriously you should take your doubts about a person. Often when you’re doubting a relationship, some part of your brain is also saying, “What if I’m just an asshole who will never be satisfied with anyone?” If you were taught not to trust your feelings as a kid (“Get over it! Stop crying! You’re just being lazy! You’re being ridiculous!”), it’s easy to draw erroneous conclusions about your feelings. “I feel impatient and dissatisfied, therefore I am a bad person” instead of “I feel impatient and dissatisfied, therefore maybe this relationship isn’t right for me.” Thanks to this tendency to interpret every “negative” feeling as a sign of weakness or bad character, a lot of people end up staying in blah relationships indefinitely, as penance.

But in my experience, if a voice in your head keeps saying, at the most inopportune times, “THIS IS NOT AS GOOD AS IT SHOULD BE, NOT EVEN CLOSE; THIS DOESN’T FEEL RIGHT,” then you really have to take that seriously.

I had one bad relationship that went on for two years, and when I look back now, I can remember this vivid feeling that nothing was ever right. I sort of loved him and hated him at the same time. I never respected him. I never felt completely relaxed. I always felt like I had to work really hard, and even then the connection was incomplete. But I kept telling myself, “Making a commitment is hard! This must be how it feels to make a commitment!”

I should’ve noticed that whenever we did something “fun” together, it was always miserable. Because as easy as it was to assume that day-to-day life was probably just stressful and not-all-that-amazing most of the time, even when we were sitting and facing each other and everything else was calm, there was still no joy or contentment. And almost every single night I would get into bed and I would think, “THIS IS NOT WHAT I WANT.” Incredibly, I believed that this was an internal problem. I was just depressed or I needed to fix other things about myself so I could be a “better” person, and then everything would feel right with him.

So forget whether or not you’re an asshole for a minute. Forget whether or not you’re “good enough” and whether or not you’re just impossible to please. Pay attention to how you actually feel. Give yourself the right not to be defined by someone else’s feelings and preferences. Don’t you deserve to take your own temperature and come up with your own answer about whether this is working or not?

You’ve been with your girlfriend for five years total, over a span of seven years. You took a break, and you still had your doubts when you got back together. You’ve had doubts for a long time now. You don’t look forward to hanging out with her. It feels like a chore. I think you’re trying to do the right thing, to avoid being a bad person. You don’t give me a lot of details to work with in your letter, but you do mention that you voiced your doubts before getting back together. I think this is you saying to me, “See, I did tell her that I wasn’t sure a long time ago. I’m not a complete asshole!” Being a good person is important to you.

But staying with someone who doesn’t make you happy doesn’t make you a good person. It’s not fair to you and it’s not fair to her. You don’t need to analyze how “good” she is or how “good” you are or how well you fit together. You don’t need to imagine all the people who’d say, “Jesus, you dumped HER? Are you INSANE?” All you need to know is this: Being with her feels like a chore. It’s been that way for a while. When you meet the right woman, it’s not going to feel like a chore to spend time with her, trust me. Even if you sometimes wish she could change this or that small thing about herself, you’re still going to look at your partner and say, “THIS IS MY FAVORITE PERSON.”

It’s truly better to be alone than to spend the rest of your life with someone whose company feels like a chore. You aren’t married and you don’t have kids yet. Move on before you get in deeper, because once you’re engaged or married or you have kids, you are not going to get out quite so easily. Stop wasting her time. Apologize that it took you so long to figure this out. Tell her that you wanted it to be right so badly, but it just isn’t.

She will be happier without you. You will be happier without her. Be kind, and say good-bye. Then, eventually, you’ll go out into the world and look for someone who feels right to you, who makes sense to you. Not someone who other people would find amazing. Someone you feel happy around. Someone you can’t get enough of. Not a scentless, shiny fantasy emerging from the ocean waves, and not a chore, either. A human being who is imperfect but somehow her imperfections make you want to draw closer, to breathe her in. Your favorite person.

In the meantime, stop beating yourself up. You’ll only recognize a woman who’s good for you after you learn to be good to yourself, to stand up for what you truly desire, and to trust your own feelings. You are the decider here. You can decide what is best for you. You have that right. Don’t let yourself be ruled by ghosts again.

 Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: When Will My Doubts Go Away?